Predator 2 (1990) 4K UHD

pred4kBack when I first saw Predator 2 at the cinema (it would have been late Spring/early summer 1991 here in the UK, as films took awhile getting over the pond back in the days of film prints etc), I really enjoyed it, but that was a rare point of view at the time, as the film was considered a critical disappointment and box-office dud. It was clearly not as good as the original, but back then that was largely a given with sequels anyway. I remember being pleasantly surprised by the twist on the original, moving from the remote jungle setting of Predator to a (slightly) near-future Los Angeles ravaged by gun crime and street gangs. Arnold’s absence is keenly felt (he refused to sign onto the film over a money dispute) as Danny Glover is a poor substitute in the action hero stakes, but then again, after Arnold, who wouldn’t be? Glover plays LAPD lieutenant Mike Harrigan, who leads a team of detectives caught between two drug gangs in a bitter street war and begins to suspect there’s a new guy in town leaving corpses from both gangs in his wake. This new ‘third party’, of course, is another Predator enjoying vacation time on Earth. To be fair to Glover, while physically he is obviously no replacement for Arnold, his strengths as an actor are largely let down by the films troublesome script. 

The thing with these franchises, they can go either one of two ways – if they’d sorted out the financial issues with Arnold and brought him back for film two, Predator would have become an Arnold franchise, in just the same way as bringing Ripley back in Aliens meant that franchise turning into Ripley’s franchise rather than the Alien xenomorphs – in the minds of the execs, you couldn’t make an Alien film without Sigourney Weaver’s name on the poster, which led that franchise down an increasingly twisted rabbit hole. Now, its quite likely that a Predator 2 with Arnold in it would have been more successful – and possibly a better movie too, but I do commend the ‘bravery’ (albeit enforced) in not going that way, and instead trying something a little more different than might be expected for a Predator sequel. 

Indeed, I rather wish Fox had taken a similar path with the Alien franchise. You could still quite legitimately have Aliens as it was without Ripley, easily establishing that Ripley’s shuttle had not yet been discovered (and perhaps never would be). You could still have the terraforming colony come to a bad xenomorph end and the marines called in, but it could have been a different planet, and the alien eggs discovered on some indigenous pyramid like in some of the early treatments of Alien‘s script. Conveniently, this would solve Cameron’s unnecessary and messy interference with the Alien biology (the Alien Queen, which I always hated, its Earth-insect analogy losing the Lovecraftian alien mystery of the original)- different planet explaining a variant xenomorph biology, opening up further possibilities for later films. 

But, I’m going off on another geek rant here and I’m too old for that nonsense. Back to Predator 2.

Released in 1990 in the States, its still undeniably a 1980s movie at heart, saturated with testosterone and violence (and action films were getting very violent during the 1980s, pushing the limits of what censors would allow). There’s a gleeful perversity in all the explosions and gunplay of Predator 2′s excess (it ran foul of censors in several countries) that marks it of the 1980s, or perhaps the bastard child of that decade.

At the time, Predator 2 had limited box office success- likely hurt by Arnold’s absence and perhaps also a reaction against the film’s violence, as if that 1980s action-movie trend had started to run its course (Total Recall would beg to differ). I just think the script needs much more work. The characters are all woefully underwritten, something that largely worked for the first film because of the larger-than-life actors in the key roles, but in Predator 2 the cast is largely made of ordinary-looking actors, physically, and they needed beefier character arcs to make up for it. 

Its because of these underwritten characters and what that does to the drama, and also the rather messy and ill-thought out plot with FBI agents, that the film hasn’t aged as well as it might, certainly when compared to films of that era like Robocop etc. Genre favourite the late, very great Bill Paxton is a joy as always, and with all due respect to Glover, I wish that Paxton had been given chance to shine in the lead role in this- Paxton never seemed to get his due in casting. Paxton’s lead could have been a darker character (why not a Dirty Harry kind of cop, his no-nonsense abrasive attitude a spark against the Predator?). Then again, that’s changing the film entirely and second-guessing all the studio politics, budget and marketing and time constraints etc. But geeks can dream!

The 4K disc is really very good- there is a persistent, authentic grain that lends it a filmic quality and the HDR really helps the explosions etc to really shine. The cinematography is a little soft in places, definitely of its time, but its certainly the best this film has ever looked on a home format. After all, who’d really have expected this film to get a 4K release when so many other films (like Robocop) haven’t? I enjoyed watching this film after so many years (the last time was probably on VHS) and returning to this whole 1980s action flick thing is fast becoming a revelation. 

James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge

deep1I watched this because I stumbled upon it somewhere in the depths of Amazon Prime’s still rather clumsy interface; turns out I watched this so you don’t have to: my loss, your gain, its one of THOSE reviews I suppose.

I don’t know what it is about James Cameron: he’s made some of the most popular films of our generation, whether it be films I don’t particularlly like (Aliens) or films that I recklessly adore (The Abyss), his films are still a huge part of the cultural zeitgeist, and then, of course, there is Titanic, which is something else entirely, but yeah, he’s one of the most successful and popular directors working today. He’s one of those directors who, if he’s working on a new movie, you sit up and take notice. Hell, he was almost single-handedly responsible for all those expensive cinema visits watching 3D films over the last decade and all those 3D TV’s sold. Its a wonder we can ever forgive him.

Its just that, somehow away from his movies, he’s so instantly irritating; just the sight of him bugs me. I don’t know why; maybe its suppressed jealously of the Man on Top of The World. Its not that I’m belittling his achievements (my last paragaraph hopefully explained that) because hell, his record speaks for itself, and I’m sure he is possibly a very nice guy at heart. Ruthless, maybe; I just have the feeling a Very Sweet Guy would never be able to get a James Cameron movie made, and maybe thats a part of it; he reminds me of Nick Nolte’s character in The Thin Red Line, who I always describe as “one of the worlds biggest bastards” but I suppose that gets the job done.

He seems something of a geek; you can tell that just from the films that he makes and the tv shows he’s been involved with, and I imagine that if he sat me down to tear me a new one about this post we’d possibly end up having a very pleasant conversation about our favourite movies. I don’t know what it is: possibly its my introvert Englishness at odds with his loud brash Americanness (is that such a thing?)  but my God he winds me up whenever he looks at a camera and opens his mouth. And God help me, this documentary has him on camera a lot, and yes he does open his mouth volumously, so yes, it was quite an experience.

Yet I love The Abyss. How can I have such an inherently instinctive irritation regards a guy who made one of my favourite movies? I know there are many issues with The Abyss. yes it is very flawed and yes it features toe-curdling dialogue that makes George Lucas seem a veritable poet, but when I saw it at the cinema many moons ago and later the improved DC edition on VHS way back when it was an engrossing experience like few others.

This documentary, with Cameron taking a brand-new submersible on a record-breaking attempt to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, should be right down my Abyss-loving alley. Well, maybe heres the thing-  while I watched this thing on Amazon Prime, this doc has been released on Blu-ray. Cameron hasn’t deemed it worthy bothering to authorise a Blu-ray release of The Abyss, like ever, in all the years that HD format has been out, and yet he managed to deem this doc worthier of the effort. I can see and hear The Ego playing with his expensive toys in his pursuit of a deepsea dive into the unknown, and yet… Bud Brigman’s dive languishes on non-anamorphic DVD in horrible SD? For the last several years I have refused to rewatch The Abyss because, hell, I’m making a stand for HD (and now 4K-UHD), I’ve had enough of this film in SD and I’m not going to bloody take it anymore, thankyou. I can imagine Cameron pulling me to one side “well, f–k you Smithy, here’s a movie about me on Blu-ray instead. Have you seen the 3D version?”

Here’s another thing- spoilers be damned, when Cameron eventually suceeds and hits rock bottom, as it were (“The Ego has landed” I think he announced, but I possibly misheard him) we find NOTHING. Its like the surface of the moon down there, only darker, obviously, and Cameron’s excitement at discovering a, er, hill, is almost endearing, its so funny. At least Bud found an alien city. WHICH WOULD LOOK BLOODY GREAT IN 4K UHD, JAMES (just saying).

Spectral (2016)

spec1.jpgIt was quite surreal, in all honesty- there was a moment where a military team on a rescue mission in a war-torn ruined city entered a building in search of survivors of an earlier battle, when it dawned on me that they were walking through the Vegas hotel where Deckard was hiding out in BR2049. “Whoops,” I muttered as the illusion of the film was suddenly broken, “this thing was filmed in Budapest.”

I think Deckard kept it tidier, mind.

Spectral was a pleasant few hours- certainly much better than I had been expecting. Tagged as a ‘Netflix Original’, as in a few cases now that is a little disingenuous. Spectral was originally a full-blown theatrical movie but Universal got cold feet upon seeing the final film and stalled its release, and Netflix came to the rescue of Universal/Legendary Pictures saving them the added costs of distribution and marketing. Rather similar to what happened with Annihilation I guess, although that got a theatrical distribution in the States at least. Welcome to the future of making/selling movies.

Spectral wasn’t likely to have set the cinema world alight I suppose, but its a pretty solid effort with big-screen production values so certainly surprised me somewhat- I later l;earned of its not insubstantial $70 million budget and yeah, its certainly all there (indeed, as BR2049 likely found later, shooting in Budapest, Hungary helps your money go a long way). I suppose that it could even be argued that the film actually deserved a theatrical shot.  While it would perhaps be easy to criticize the script for some failings, that would almost seem a little unfair, as the film is simply what it is – a sincere and unapologetic mashup of Predator, Aliens and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (a film I have always had something of a soft spot for), with visuals probably inspired by modern videogame culture- Gears of War a particular example.

spec2So while it feels very familiar (and yes, the shooting locations ensure it even looks a little familiar, although in this case this film got there first) it most importantly also seems very sincere and well-intentioned rather than a cynical knock-off. Its a decent sci-fi romp with a decent cast, plenty of action and surprisingly impressive production values. I wouldn’t compare it to a classic like Alien but it does have that same feel of a b-movie lavished with a-list talent.

There is also something oddly comforting and nostalgic, even, about a simple sci-fi movie that doesn’t feature characters in spandex and capes or overblown CGI battle sequences, and I’m pretty certain that I will revisit this film again in time. Its just ironic and a further sign of our times that I expect a disc release will never happen and re-watches will depend on it being available on Netflix in the future- a further glimpse of the inevitable anyway, I suppose, if physical media continues to decline. I don’t find thinking of that future particularly comforting.

One further thought- I’ve never really been a subscriber to the old adage that a ‘name’ actor sells a movie, but I do wonder that if this had somehow starred, say, Tom Cruise it might have had a better fate/bigger success akin to, perhaps, something like Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow.  Certainly Universal might have been more bullish about the films possible success and not sold it to Netflix. That being said, I always like to see films with different actors away from the predictable casting norm, and the cast here all account of themselves well.

 

 

Alien meets its nemesis

…and it’s the US Box Office. Years ago one of the my favourite articles in the monthly Starburst magazine  would be Tony Crawleys annual box office charts, summarising the performance of genre films from the  year before. This was long before the internet, and it was always enlightening to see how certain films had managed at the box office. It was, of course,  no indication of quality -‘the cruelest cut of all’ was how Blade Runner‘s dismal performance was summarised; I’ll remember that line forever. Ever since, I’ve always been curious about box office, the vagaries of cinemagoers taste, critic influence and marketing issues.

So here is the sad case of Alien Covenant, which after a reasonable launch plunged in its second week at the US box office, with a 71% drop in takings. A current final tally of $71 million domestic is a pretty poor showing, and foreign return of $110 million won’t really help the film even break even on a purported $97-110 million (depending who you listen to) budget.

a1
ah, the good old days…

Its funny- the original Alien is perceived as being a huge hit and you have to allow for post-1979 inflation to really know what its then-£80 million domestic equates to in 2017 dollars, but I recall stories back then that the film never actually turned a profit for Fox (rumour  had it that creative accounting was at work to nullify people’s percentages on the profits). For curiosities sake: Aliens $85 million domestic in 1986, Alien 3 $55 million in 1992…

So does this signal another hiatus for the Alien films, despite Ridley Scott’s intention to shoot another sequel next year?

I wonder, what did the studio expect? We are living in a strange world for movies, where studios now have to dodge Marvel blockbusters and DC blockbuster-wannabes and -God help ’em- Star Wars films, and maybe the odd Fox superhero flick or Transformers movie. Where on earth Jim Camerons’ four Avatar sequels eventually fit in is beyond me. Indeed, there seem to be new blockbusters dropped every week in summer- its carnage out there (as King Arthur proved).  

Covenant was originally intended to be released later this year but was brought forward to May- unfortunately two weeks after the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 juggernaut ($336 million domestic, $461 million foreign) and just a week before the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie ($135 million domestic, $392 foreign). When you look at it like that, an R-rated movie (and belated sequel to the ill-received Prometheus) doesn’t really have much hope, does it? A telling comparison is the similarly R-rated Mad Max: Fury Road, universally acclaimed (which Covenant wasn’t) and assumed a hit, which earned $154 domestic and $224 foreign- superior by some margin but on a $154 million budget. So its hard to make out Covenant as some kind of disaster- disappointing yes, but these Alien films have long shelf-lives.

But does it kill any sequel? For all Covenant‘s faults (and I actually quite liked it) I would like to see that sequel, if only to put that Prometheus/Covenant storyline to a rest. It does seem rather doubtful at the moment. Clearly Covenant wasn’t a great film, but was its quality at fault here or rather the swamping of the box office with far too frequent blockbusters and cinemagoers always turning to the Next Thing? I have read that the Pirates of the Caribbean flick is actually deemed the more disappointing by its studio – particularly due to its $230 million budget (foreign box office saved the day for that one). So I guess all things are relative. Maybe Ridley will get one more shot after all.

Prometheus Bound

The night before watching Alien: Covenant, I gave Prometheus another spin.

Here’s my thoughts.

prom1Somewhere in Prometheus there is a great movie, but we’ll never see it. Its lost somewhere in the jumble of hints and mysteries and confused logic, in the unfocused script that doesn’t know if it’s more interested in Space Gods and mythology than aliens and corporate monsters. Its no disaster, but it is a frustrating mess.

It doesn’t lack for ambition. Essentially it shares the same story as 2001: A Space Odyssey, and you don’t get more ambitious than that.  The fact that it feels wrong to mention 2001 and Prometheus in the same sentence speaks volumes. 2001 had Monoliths shaping and influencing human evolution (and perhaps, although its never shown, even humanity’s creation). Prometheus has humanoid aliens, the Engineers, doing it. The paintings on cave walls indicating a star atlas serves the same purpose as burying a monolith on the moon; its a test to establish a civilization’s technological ability. As usual though, the logic of Prometheus breaks down- sure, show a map for the Engineer’s homeworld, in order for humanity to meet its creator, but instead it turns out it is a map to the Engineers military installation where they create/store weapons of mass destruction; the logic simply doesn’t follow through, and this occurs time and again.

But anyway, we’ll cut Prometheus some slack for asking the Big Questions.  So Engineers use the Black Goo to shape human creation and through repeated visits over millennia shape our evolution, visiting primitive cultures and indicating where they come from. It might strike some as a leap of logic to assume all this is some invitation- perhaps if it had been described as a ‘test’ it might have been more plausible/interesting to the plot.

It might be worthwhile to mention the Prometheus timeline here as I think that might solve one of the films many mysteries/confusions. Ridley Scott suggested during the press for Prometheus that Jesus might have been an Engineer. I think that may have been more than an offhand remark- it may actually be a clue. The expedition exploring the Engineer’s base soon find the corpse of an Engineer which is carbon-dated to over two thousand years old- a holographic recording indicates he was killed during some moment of panic in which several engineers were fleeing some danger. We later see the hapless Fifield and Millburn stumble upon a pile of dead Engineers, having suffered some violent calamity likely linked to those fleeing engineers. Later, David reviews a holographic recording on the Juggernaut’s bridge in which the engineers access a star map and set their destination as Earth- these Engineers seem calm and to not be in immediate danger, so I would suggest this scene predates the earlier one.

So I would suggest this. Two thousand years ago, the Engineers revisit Earth to see how things have progressed. One of them is who we know now as Jesus, who teaches some words of wisdom to the primitive Terrans. Some of it gets lost in translation. Jesus the Engineer gets crucified, begs forgiveness of ‘God’ for this sin. But the Engineers are not so forgiving and decide this particular evolutionary experiment is at an end. So back at the military installation it is decided to send a juggernaut to Earth and bomb it with its vases of Black Goo, wipe out all life and start the experiment all over again. Hence the scene of the star map and the Engineers planning the route. However, things go awry loading up the vases of death and there is a breakout of the Black Goo, resulting in all the dead corpses, the hologram of the fleeing Engineers and the abandoned state of the installation. The last surviving Engineer puts himself into suspended animation to await rescue, which apparently never comes.

Fast forward just over two thousand years, and guess who shows up? Our heroes of the Prometheus. The Engineer is understandably pissed off at his very target waking him up. He kills them for this affront and decides there is no further time to waste,  activating the ship and setting off to bomb Earth all by himself.

You know… it sort of makes sense. And usually I love this kind of stuff; films that foster all kinds of thinking and theorising. 2001 itself was the master of this- people still debate that film today. But Prometheus is no 2001, and the film’s mysteries seem more from ill-judgement and confused storytelling than any deliberate master plan.  Instead it spends too much time getting audiences side-tracked with superfluous nonsense:

prom2You find the head of an alien being and take it back to your ship. Its the biggest discovery in all of history. Instead of quarantining it or starting labwork, you go all Frankenstein and start trying to reanimate it, after its been dead for two thousand years, somehow causing it to explode. What the hell is all that about? What do they expect it to do- wake up and start chatting with them?

Expedition lead Meredith Vickers tries her hardest to be an utter corporate bitch. She shares few scenes and little empathy with ship captain Janek. Then all of a sudden she turns up at the bridge flirting with him and they go off for casual sex. It doesn’t add anything to the plot; the ensuing relationship has no impact on what happens later. What’s it doing in this movie?

A little earlier, Janek has spotted life signs from one of the robot scanners mapping the alien installation. Signs of life! Set the alert sirens! This is the biggest discovery ever! Instead, he shrugs it off and doesn’t tell anyone, thinking that maybe the scanner is faulty (I think it’s actually picking up the intermittent/cryogenic signs of the sleeping Engineer but that’s never explained either). Janek instead rings up Fifield and Millburn who you remember got lost and are still back in the installation, to tip them off. One of them – I think it’s Millburn- actually checks his map on his forearm and reports his location to Janek. But hang on, I thought they were lost. They’ve got a map all this time and know where they are? My brain hurts. Nothing is making sense.

Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway, our star-crossed lovers/archeologists (thats star-crossed lovers with zero screen chemistry- there is some terrible casting in Prometheus). Charlie is pretty upbeat, wildly ecstatic even, at what they have discovered and realises the magnitude of what they have found on the planet. But something in the alien decor doesn’t appeal to him and he suddenly decides it’s ‘just a tomb’ and his mood goes a complete 180 and he hits the bottle and acts like a complete jerk. What? Later he comments about giving life and Shaw pouts that she cannot have kids and boom with the subtlety of a xenomorph crashing into the room its set up for Shaw to get impossibly pregnant from Holloway’s Black Goo-infested sperm.

No, subtlety is not Prometheus‘ strong point. Which is infuriating, really, because it’s trying to be a science fiction film of Big Ideas instead of just another bug hunt, and it looks utterly gorgeous. Advance word on Alien: Covenant seems to indicate that Ridley has second-thought things and is heading back to familiar bug-hunt territory, which might cheer Alien/Aliens fans but actually has me rather uneasy. In just the same way as I really like the film noir/doomladen nightmare of Alien 3,  I quite like Prometheus going  somewhere else, into Space Gods territory-  it is just so annoying how clumsy and stupid and, yes, bad it is at the same time. Maybe going back to Alien basics is the right way to go.

I suppose there is a line of thought that Prometheus only really goes wrong when it is trying to wrap itself around the whole Alien mythology. Certainly the Engineers being the Space Jockey’s of the original, dispelling the Lovecraftian mysteries of the 1979 film, is a major misstep which threatens to derail the whole franchise. I sincerely wish someone had found some other way of linking Prometheus with Alien, if even just that the hunt for the Engineers would eventually lead humanity into deep space and the signal that the Nostromo was sent to investigate-  leading to it instead of the Engineers being the architects of it. Indeed, perhaps the Engineers having fallen foul of it themselves. You go find the Engineers homeworld and they are all dead. You investigate the horror that overcame them and stumble on a derelict and some eggs. Something as simple as that, while developing all sorts of Space Gods stuff about creation and evolution.

The funny thing is, for a pretty frustrating movie, I’ve rewatched it several times now and its generated all sorts of writing here on my blog and elsewhere on the internet. So while it did many things wrong, it must have done something right, to generate so much attention and thinking? Will Alien: Covenant, I wonder?

I still wonder if Ridley has a Prometheus: Director’s Cut or Prometheus Unbound somewhere that, while it cannot possibly fix it, might actually be a better movie.

 

It’s a strange world….

Have you read the news today...?
Hey, have you read the news today…?

This has been one of those weeks where I found myself wondering if I’d slipped into the Twilight Zone or something…

ALIEN 5

First came the confirmation, after weeks of rumours, that Neill Blomkamp of District 9 fame (and, lets not forget, Elysium infamy) has signed on to make Alien 5, and that it would be essentially a sequel to Aliens, bringing back Ripley, Hicks and Newt, apparently ignoring the existence of both Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection. Now, I couldn’t give two hoots about Resurrection but I’m a big fan of Alien 3, particularly the workprint version. Indeed, I much prefer Alien 3 to Aliens, as I feel that Cameron’s film really undermined the mystery and terror of the first film, turning it into Rambo in Space. God knows I’m in the minority in that, as the film has its legions of fans who are now hugely excited. But its really bizarre, this whole thing. Are the events of the third and fourth film to be consigned to a hyper-sleep dream? Really, the whole thing boggles the mind. I’m curious to see how Blomkamp pulls the whole conceit off, following Aliens somehow with those characters, considering how many years have passed now and the actors will have aged so much (it is seemingly not being recast as Sigourney Weaver has apparently signed on for the project). Its either some kind of genius project or a horrible cynical reboot disaster…. only time will tell.

More BLADE RUNNER 2 news…

Another project that carries a heavy weight on its shoulders is the promised (or threatened, its a matter of opinion) Blade Runner 2. Alcon, the production company behind the film, has officially announced that the film commences shooting summer 2016 with Denis Villeneuve signed as the director. Villeneuve made the well-regarded Prisonerswhich I haven’t seen yet (but you can be certain its now top of my watch list). Harrison Ford is confirmed, having been very impressed by the screenplay penned by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green (the script being one of the best things Ford ever read, according to earlier reports by Scott). The story is reportedly set several decades after the events of the original film. So maybe Deckard wasn’t a rep after all?

Of course the big news about all this is that while Ridley Scott remains involved (presumably in a producer role) its now confirmed that he won’t be directing. I’m split on this. On the one hand, after Prometheus, I’m rather relieved, as it would have been a huge weight for Scott to equal/surpass his original work. On the other hand, I’m disappointed as there’s that part of me just plain curious to see what Scott could come up with, returning to Blade Runner with all the tech that film-makers have these days. Have to admit its likely a wise move by Scott. If it somehow turns out that Blade Runner 2 is a great movie and a worthy sequel, he still has his name on it- if it turns out to be terrible then he can blame everyone else. Certainly, whatever you think of the project, Denis Villeneuve is a very brave man. Signing on for the sequel to such a classic film (one that hardly needs any sequel at all) must be such a daunting prospect.

But what a strange week its been. Alien 5. Blade Runner 2 confirmed. Add it to recent news that Sony has teamed up with Marvel Studios to reboot its Spider Man franchise yet again…. its a crazy world. To be honest, I still can’t believe that we have another Star Wars movie coming this December. Next thing you know, Vangelis will sign on to produce the Blade Runner 2 score and as a genius nod to his fans release a complete Blade Runner soundtrack with all the previously unreleased music that we’ve been waiting decades for.  Who knows? These days it seems all bets are off.